The Hawk had joined Boston late last August after one of the strangest interludes in the history of the game. Although baseball is famous for feuds and stubbornness, Harrelson became one of the few men to profit from them when Charlie Finley, the owner of the Oakland (n� Kansas City) Athletics, released him outright. Having heard about a ruckus on an airplane involving the A's, Finley became convinced that Manager Alvin Dark had lost control of the team. He fired Dark, almost rehired him and finally fired him for good.
The reaction of the players was violent, and this made Finley furious, particularly when Harrelson was quoted as saying that Finley was a menace to baseball. Harrelson admitted to Finley that he had been critical of him, but said that he had not called him a menace to baseball. Finley told Harrelson to draft a denial. While Harrelson sat thinking about what he would say, Finley called back to say that Harrelson had been given his unconditional release.
"At first," says Harrelson, "I could not believe it. Then I called the commissioner's office in New York and confirmed it." The unconditional release meant that Harrelson could sell himself to the highest bidder, and soon the bids began coming. "I was afraid," says The Hawk, "that Finley might have blackballed me with the other owners. I was sure that if he hadn't some teams would come after me because in my own mind I felt that I was hitting the ball harder than anybody in baseball outside of Yastrzemski."
Interior scouts, those nomads of the game who wander from city to city assessing players on other teams for possible later trades, had been impressed with Harrelson's hitting almost as much as Harrelson was himself. At the end of the first week of July 1967 Harrelson was down among the dregs of the league. But during the next five weeks he averaged nearly a run batted in a game, and this for a team that celebrated wild two-run sprees late into the night. Harrelson batted .336 during that period.
Seven teams—Boston, Detroit, the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, the New York Yankees, Baltimore and the Atlanta Braves—approached Harrelson, who had none other than Alvin Dark to advise him. Harrelson accepted the Red Sox offer. He is believed to have received a bonus of $50,000 to $75,000 and a three-year contract.
The final irony of the Harrelson affair is that Finley's A's have now risen to fifth place. It is interesting to speculate where they might be with Harrelson. While the A's have lost 23 games by a run this year, Harrelson has produced 12 game-winning hits for Boston. Against Oakland he is batting .413. "I love to hit against that team," he says, "because I know Charlie is somewhere listening."
Two of Harrelson's diversions are sketching clothes and golf courses. "When Betty Ann, my wife, and I are driving along the highway," he says, "I think up courses and plan them in my own mind. On my courses it is often 350 yards from the tees to the fairway, so you gotta be able to hit the ball." Harrelson has shot a 65 and three times has won the Baseball Player's Golf Tournament in Miami, the first time in 1965, even though he had left his own clubs on his front porch in Savannah, Ga.
Harrelson has been extraordinarily gifted at playing games—any games—almost all his life. He was born in Woodruff, S.C., but his family later moved to Savannah, where he was best known as a basketball player and golfer in his younger days. Occasionally he fought in amateur boxing bouts but says, "There were only three of them and I won two. The other one, forget it. All I saw was the ceiling." He was offered a basketball scholarship at the University of Georgia and local people were interested in backing him in the pro golf tour. When he said he might like that he was classified by the U.S. Golf Association as a nonamateur and is thus ineligible to play in amateur tourneys. "I wrote to Joe Dey at Golf House in New York to get him to reclassify me as an amateur, but I have never gotten an answer."
Married at 17, he decided to ignore basketball and golf and instead accepted a $30,000 bonus from the A's in 1959 to play baseball. He soon began gathering what he calls, "the normal debts of a young man with a family—mortgage, cars and so forth." He borrowed money from Finley, a thing he says "many players do with the team they play for." Last year, having won his freedom from Finley and acquired the money from the Red Sox as a free agent, the first thing he did was buy his mother a Cadillac Eldorado, "because she had worked so hard to give me a chance by putting me through Benedictine Military Academy. I paid off my debts as quickly as I could, because for the first time in my life I could sign a check over the weekend and not have to run to the bank on Monday morning to cover it."
Under the Nehru jackets, turtleneck sweaters and the uniform blouse of the Red Sox, Ken Harrelson wears two medals: a St. Christopher—guardian of the traveler—and a St. Jude—the patron of lost causes. He almost became a lost cause when he was traded to Washington in 1966. Then-manager Gil Hodges and he did not get along, even though Hodges worked hard with The Hawk to make him a fair fielding first baseman. "Gil just didn't like the way I dressed or wore my hair," says Harrelson. "I wear my hair the way I do because of the size of my nose. My sister advised me years ago to have my hair styled so my nose wouldn't be so prominent. Gil told me to get my hair cut one day and it slipped my mind. The next day when I got to the park he told me not to bother to suit up until it was cut. Well, Bob Humphreys gave me a box cut so I could get dressed, but not too long afterward I was back in Kansas City."